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Search Warrants

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What Is a Search Warrant?

A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that gives police officers the right to search a specific place for specific objects or materials. In order to have a search warrant issued, the requesting officer must show that "probable cause" exists.

What Is the Fourth Amendment?

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees to all citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of person and/or property. While exceptions to the general rule exist, the 4th Amendment requires that police have a valid search warrant to conduct a search and/or seizure of your person and property.

What Is Probable Cause?

Probable cause is a legal standard wherein the officer has in his or her possession facts and circumstances within the police officer’s knowledge that provide a "reasonably trustworthy basis for a man of reasonable caution to believe that a criminal offense has been committed or is about to take place." (Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132)

Does an Officer Need a Search Warrant to Search Me?

There are specific instances where a police officer can validly search you or your property without a warrant. These situations include:

  • Consent searches – If you voluntarily agree to let a police office conduct a search, the officer does not need a warrant. The person has the right to refuse to give consent and may also revoke consent at any point during the search. Consent must be voluntary and not the result of police coercion.
  • Searches made in connection with arrest – If you are arrested, police can search you and the area in your immediate control without a search warrant. Immediate control typically means within your wingspan.
  • Car searches – If a police officer has a valid reason to pull you over, the officer has the right to search your car without a search warrant. However, the officer must have probable cause to believe the car has contraband or evidence of a crime.
  • Plain view doctrine – Police officers do not need a warrant to seize illegal items or evidence that are in plain view. Three prongs must be satisfied:
    • The officer must lawfully be present at the place where the evidence can be plainly viewed
    • The officer have a lawful right of access to the object, and,
    • It is immediately apparent that the object is evidence or the fruit of a crime

When Are Search Warrants Illegal?

There are circumstances where a search warrant is invalid. Consequently, the resulting search will be deemed unconstitutional. A search warrant may be illegal for the following reasons:

  • The search warrant was obtained without probable cause, and
  • The search warrant does not state with specificity the time, place, and items to be searched.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Feel a Search Was Illegal?

Yes. A qualified criminal defense attorney will be able to determine whether the police followed the proper procedure in conducting a search. The attorney will also be able to determine whether your constitutional rights were violated. If your attorney successfully argues that your 4th Amendment rights were violated, evidence uncovered during the unlawful search will be deemed inadmissible.

Photo of page author Kirin McKenna

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-13-2015 03:55 PM PDT

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